Sometimes we forget, my friends and I: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Proposition 8. The Defense of Marriage Act. All anti-gay legislation which have been successfully challenged or repealed in my lifetime.
We were born into a world where the word “gay” rolled off the tongues of the cast of “Will and Grace,” was sprinkled through magazines and literature, and, in the more progressive communities, even discussed in sex ed. classes. Sometimes we forget there was a time when “gay” was simply “homosexual,” and homosexuality was either a sickness, a crime, or a secret. No advocates blazing the television screens with demands for equality, no pride marches, no support.
There was, however, a great deal of shame and pain, and there were a few men brave enough to fight for their communities’ basic rights. Pre-Harvey Milk. Pre-Stonewall Riots. The Rep Stage’s The Temperamentals is brings us back to the deeper roots of the gay rights movement: the Mattachine Society.
Directed by Kasi Campbell, the Temperamentals is a true-to-life historical drama of the 1950’s. A beautiful urban exterior (set design JD Madsen) masks a red living room interior, with a small droning television in the center, selling household products, domesticity, and society’s expectations. When the set mutes, we meet Harry Hay (Nigel Reed), a blunt and impassioned middle-aged man intent on beginning a unified political movement of men like himself, men who are “temperamental” (code for homosexual). Fashion designer and lover Rudi Gernreich (Alexander Strain) gently smiles at his doe-eyed determination, but the two go on to found the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups in the United States.
Bob Hull (Rick Hammerly) and his partner Chuck Rowland (Vaughn Irving) eventually join, and when fellow Mattachine member Dale Jennings (Brandon McCoy) lands in jail on “lewd and vagrant” charges, the group is finally given an opportunity they’ve been both fighting for and running from.
History swings fiercely in the background of the Mattachine Society movement. Just on the heels of World War II, and in the red thick of the McCarthy era, mood of the country is the play’s un-credited charater. It bites its nails and ducks its head. Fear is more prevalent than change, and as the men enlist other gay men to join their cause, they’re met with equal parts horror and terror.
The ensemble of actors is magnetic and unified. Reed’s portrayal of the maddeningly unwavering Hay is iron-fisted and bold. You know this character – he is is the man at the party who just doesn’t know when to stop discussing the Bush administration. The most interesting arc is that of Strain’s, whose Wilde-esque wit transforms Rudy slowly into something solemn, serious, and apologetically earthbound.
The production is more triumphant than it is joyous, more sardonic than it is comical (though the audience will certainly be admitted a few laughs here and there). With gorgeous Mad Men-era attire (costume design Denise Umland) and a shadowy and straight-edged mood (lighting design Dan Covey and sound design Neil McFadden), it’s as smooth and wafting as the 1950’s landscape it inhabits. And the 1950’s landscape was a man’s terrain. Granted, this show is about gay men, and each story cannot nor should not be everyone’s story, but the women (briefly played by the male ensemble) appear perimeter-stricken and caricaturized.
Most striking about the piece is its politics – politics of gender expression, politics of government, and even politics of class strike notes still being struck today. We all want to be free, but what does free mean? Is “passing” as heterosexual so terrible? What is the ultimate destination, and if we can’t agree on it, where does that leave us?
I visited the Stonewall Inn in New York city last summer, the scene of the riots that are said to be the events that ignited the gay rights movement. I’d hoped I’d still be able to hear the ghosts of glasses smashing and fearless New Yorkers fighting just to be themselves. But now I realize that before the riots there was Rudi Gernreich and Harry Hay, writing a doctrine of human rights and peddling it carefully at parties. Change taking effect feels like that, too, and it’s worth witnessing. If history’s cyclical persuasion has taught us anything, it’s that the greatest danger we face is to forget.
The Temperamentals by Jon Marans. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Featuring Rick Hammerly, Vaughn Irving, Brandon McCoy, Nigel Reed and Alexander Strain. Scenic design, JD Madsen; lights, Dan Covey; costumes, Denise Umland; sound design, Neil McFadden. Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh.